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Management in Uncertain Times

Focus on why you’re in business and build a mindset of experimentation

The boating business is hot, and the pandemic is winding down — or is it? These are extraordinary times in the boat business and anywhere else you look. The so-often repeated phrase “in these uncertain times” could not be more accurate.

So what does a leader rely on now? For many successful leaders, this has been a great time to double down on why your business exists, reinforce your vision and then follow it.

The Value of Why

About 10 years ago, I attended a press event hosted by Bill McGill, CEO (now executive chairman) of MarineMax, the industry-leading boat dealer. In his speech, he talked about his view of why the company existed. “We change people’s lives,” he said.

Then he held up a book called Start with Why by Simon Sinek, and gave every attendee a copy to take home and read. Sinek’s concept is straightforward and challenging. The most successful companies make it clear why they are in business and what they stand for, an exercise that can build loyalty like no competitive comparison of features and benefits. Companies such as Southwest Airlines, connecting people to what’s important in their lives, and Apple, thinking differently, are two of Sinek’s favorite examples. But not every company has the same clarity around why they exist.

Our brains have limbic and neocortex parts, Sinek explains, and the rational thought that emanates from the latter, newer part is regularly overridden by the former — which is older, is responsible for our feelings, and controls our behavior and decision-making. When we say that we have a gut feeling, that’s our limbic brain talking to us. Sinek points to research describing decisions made by this part of your brain as typically faster and higher quality — and says these are the type of decisions we make through understanding the why of an organization, not the detail of its products.

For leadership, gaining clarity of the why sets a context for making plans, developing and refining products, and executing them in a progressive, innovative way. At MarineMax, whether it’s been extending the product line into the superyacht and yacht-vacation sectors or developing digital communication with customers through apps and videos, the company has developed an ability to adjust and experiment to see what really changes people’s lives. In the process, MarineMax also does a good job of communicating the company’s why.

The simple measure used by MarineMax is always whether customers have a good experience and feel like they belong to the MarineMax community. “United By Water,” as the company tags it. If customers feel it, that’s the limbic brain responding — and as Sinek says, that’s where a company and its products “win hearts and minds.”

Making Small Bets

Another book that has long resonated with me is Little Bets by Peter Sims. It focuses on the value of regularly making small changes as experiments, many of which typically fail. But failing often and quickly is a good thing, because we are constantly learning and will begin to discover new ideas. And sometimes, as Sims puts it, a new pathway will open up and lead to a broad avenue of new possibilities.

A fundamental aspect of the Little Bets approach is the strategy of breaking down a project or a process into discrete, relatively small problems. By doing so, a company experiments without investing extended resources in a master plan that laboriously defines every detail ahead of time. In the face of an unpredictable marketplace, it’s much better to develop a method in which teams learn to tackle small problems with autonomy, organize themselves, and learn what they need to do as they proceed. A big bonus is that when the next market shift suddenly occurs, those engaged, empowered teams will be ready to adapt quickly.

One example Sims uses is Starbucks, which founder Howard Schultz originally envisioned as an Italian-style coffeehouse where baristas wore bow ties. Needless to say, what emerged through a series of experiments was a totally different, American-style coffeehouse. Importantly, Schultz was not hung up on having the bow ties; what he relied upon was his why for Starbucks: “Great coffee in a communal place.” Making bets large or small is grounded in knowing why you’re in business.

Another good example of a leader understanding his company’s why is Dave McLaughlin of Clean Ocean Access. His nonprofit has a clear sense of why it exists: a clean, healthy ocean that is accessible to all. Through experimentation and discovery, the organization has evolved from a focus on defending access rights to engaging an expanding community aiming to change behaviors in a way that will produce a cleaner, healthier ocean.

Finding Your Why

Last month, I wrote about the message of why in a different guise, delivered by leadership coach Alicia Rodriguez to a well-attended marine industry webinar on the topic of “A Woman’s Quest for Meaning.” Rodriguez described the why as putting “resonance before reason,” which sounds much like Sinek’s hierarchy of putting the feelings generated by our limbic brain ahead of the thoughts produced by our neocortex. When presented with an idea, a project, a company or its leader, we should listen for our body’s natural response to see whether we’re drawn forward or not. If we are, we’ll discover the reason in due course.

In Start with Why, Sinek writes that every person and every organization has a why, and that finding it doesn’t take invention, but discovery. Every company with the ability to inspire was founded by a person or a small group of people inspired to do something bigger than themselves.

“The why does not come from looking ahead at what you want to achieve and figuring out an appropriate strategy to get there,” Sinek writes. Instead, it comes from looking in the opposite direction, by looking to the past, where the why is born out of our upbringing and life experience.

Staying true to why the company exists has been a key to MarineMax’s evolution, even as the CEO’s chair has passed from founder McGill to his son Brett. With a clear goal of changing people’s lives through the boating community, the company leadership has gained the understanding and confidence to invest in a more vertically integrated company, in recent years buying into the superyacht sector rather than losing longtime clients who were buying bigger yachts. More recently, MarineMax expanded into the Midwest with culturally complementary acquisitions such as SkipperBud’s dealerships and the American yacht brand Cruisers.

Will these investments pay off? There are no guarantees that any business strategies will succeed, especially in these times, but starting with a sure sense of why and communicating it consistently will improve the odds, giving your organization a means of attracting customers and generating long-term loyalties. 

This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue.

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